“For a while I was the person I’d always wanted to be,” – David Thibodeau about his time at Branch Davidian compound Mt. Carmel during the 51-day Waco siege.
When we think about high-profile cult situations, especially ones that turn as dramatically deadly as David Koresh’s Branch Davidian group did during the siege at Waco, most of us distance ourselves from cult members. Whether we are believers in anything or not, we are convinced that our worldview is infinitely more rational than members of “cults.”
The truth is, however, that the psychological profile of people who join cults isn’t that different than most people. We all yearn for a place to belong, we organize mundane details into profound meaning, and can be easily swayed by a great storyteller with an intoxicating personality.
In Waco siege survivor David Thibodeau’s 1999 memoir A Place Called Waco, he retreads across his life with a bit of change in his former perspective but not much. He harbors few regrets about following and believing Koresh. He seems more in doubt than he was before, but still feels like Koresh was onto something spiritually. The details of Koresh’s teachings and the group’s evolution of belief systems is laid out as factually information rather than as an attempt to convert. What Thibodeau seems to be trying to persuade the book’s audience of is of the group’s humanity, which has been stripped a bit to play into the narrative of a crazy cult and seems to have led to the group’s demise at the hands of the U.S. government.
“These torments are intended to sap our wills and compel us to surrender to an authority that refuses to a accept that we are a valid religious community with deeply held beliefs. All our attempts to explain our commitment to what we believe have ben dismissed as mere ‘Bible babble.'”
The ATF did not descend on David Koresh’s group at their Mt. Carmel compound in Waco, Texas out of nowhere, however. Koresh believed he was God and believed that a doomsday prophesy coded in the bible was coming to culmination very soon. He spun his followers into a frenzy of adoration and fear of the impending end of the world. Like Warren Jeffs, he was marrying and having children with girls as young as 12. Like many cult leaders who convince others they are divine and that possessions don’t matter because the world is ending soon, he asked his followers to give up their lives and all their wealth and assets to sustain the group.
Like Jeffs’ FLDS, they also established businesses to financially sustain the group. In Koresh’s case, this involved illegal firearm sales —- which leads us to why the ATF got involved. They went after Koresh because of tips about their illegal weapons. The group moved in on Waco and even sent in an agent to embed himself in the group for information. He was sniffed out right away, but instead of ejecting him, Koresh tried to convert him instead. In a May 1993 interview with the Waco Tribune-Herald, Rodriguez admitted that Koresh’s charisma almost worked on him. “He was close,” he said. “The thing that probably saved me is that I didn’t have to stay.”
Once the siege started, Thibedou writes poetically about the adrenaline-fueled change in perspective that occurred within him that made him enjoy the terrifying crisis. We all face death, and the possibility of large-scale disaster either through war, nature, disease, or accident. We’re wired to enjoy danger to a degree because it helps us survive when we’re in that kind of intense situation. This is why we like thrilling movies, novels, and real life adventures like mountain climbing and roller coaster rides.
The imagery and arguments used in churches and cults often speak to this part of it. They bait us to not just fear possible “end times,” but to be excited by it. The hope of transitioning into a different form than the physical limitations of the human animal is also an existing prospect. Our imaginations are ignited over the idea of “superhuman” abilities. In s state of intense crisis, the hormones rushing through our bodies to keep us alive can make us feel transitioned to a kind of state we’ve only dreamed about. This is what Thibodeau experienced, and he attributes a spiritual significance to it.
“All in all, though, we accepted the hard time as a test of our fate and an enhanced ‘withering experience,’ a kind of purification under duress. I don’t really miss the goodies that used to obsess me, didn’t mind going without pizza and beer. On the contrary, as I felt the fat slipping from my bones, hunger became a kind of exaltation.
“Even toward the end of the siege, when I got so weak I could barely walk, I was buoyed by sheer pride. As my flab dissolved, my willpower firmed up. Inside, I felt good, essentially invulnerable. For a while I was the person I’d always wanted to be.
“In the seven weeks during which we were forcibly holed up, I was given a powerful taste of transcendence that will always flavor my life—a sense of going beyond the boundaries of everyday existence and my own limitations into another, more exalted realm. But a taste was all it was. During those long nights and slow days I came to realize that a glimpse of such profundities was probably all I’de ver have, all my earthbound nature would ever allow me to achieve.”
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